Bill Burns says US is not ‘discussing settlement of war’ in Ukraine as Zelenskiy visits Kherson
The CIA director, Bill Burns, met his Russian counterpart in Ankara on Monday in a rare high-level meeting, but the US insists it is not engaged in secret peace talks with Moscow without Ukrainian officials being present.
The meeting in the Turkish capital with the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, followed speculation that some senior US figures would like Ukraine to enter negotiations with the Kremlin to end the war.
US officials said the main purpose of the encounter was to convey “a message on the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia” and to discuss the cases of Americans held in detention in the country.
They emphasised that Burns was “not conducting negotiations of any kind” and “not discussing settlement of the war in Ukraine” – after a leak from the Kremlin in the aftermath of Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant first reported that a meeting was taking place between the US and Russia in Ankara, and said Naryshkin would be present. The newspaper said it did not know the purpose of the discussion.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said he could neither confirm nor deny reports, before the US confirmed that Burns, the person normally used by Joe Biden for backchannel discussions, would be present at the meeting.
There have been no publicly acknowledged meetings between US and Russian leaders since before the invasion, although there have been some direct phone conversations. The last face-to-face was when Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, met Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in Geneva on 21 January.
Last week speculation emerged that some senior White House advisers would prefer to see an end to the fighting. Gen Mark Milley, the US’s top military officer, said he believed Ukraine had fought the Russian military to a standstill and there were “possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions”.
But the US agreed to send a further $400m (£340m) of military aid to Ukraine, taking the total to $18.9bn since January 2021 – and Biden insisted at the G20 summit there were no secret negotiations going on.
“I’ve been very clear that we’re going to continue to provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves. And we are not going to engage in any negotiation. There’s nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. This is a decision Ukraine has to make,” the president said.
Biden was speaking after he met China’s president, Xi Jinping, in Bali, Indonesia. Afterwards, Biden said he and Xi “reaffirmed our shared belief in the threat or the use of nuclear weapons is totally unacceptable” – reinforcing what the US said was Burns’s key message.
In its readout of the meeting, Beijing said “China is highly concerned with the current situation in Ukraine” but made no reference to the nuclear issue. A “confrontation between major powers must be avoided”, Beijing added.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is not attending the G20, but Moscow is represented by Lavrov. The Associated Press, citing Indonesian officials, reported that Lavrov was taken to hospital where he was briefly treated for a heart condition.
Russia’s foreign ministry denounced the reports as “the height of fakery”, as the spokesperson Maria Zakharova posted a video of Lavrov sitting outdoors on a patio, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, reading documents. The minister said speculation about senior Kremlin officials’ health was “not new in politics”.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Monday made a surprise visit to the southern city of Kherson to celebrate its recapture after eight months of Russian occupation. “We are moving forward. We are ready for peace, peace for all our country,” he said.
Zelenskiy said it was important to visit Kherson to show residents his support and to demonstrate that “we are really returning, we really raise our flag”. He said: “I’m really happy, you can tell by the reaction of the people, their reaction is not staged.”
The national anthem of Ukraine was sung as the city’s flag was raised. When asked where Ukrainian forces might make their next move, he responded, “Not Moscow… The territories of another country don’t interest us.
Zelenskiy arrived minutes before nearby shelling and resounding artillery gunfire could be heard in Kherson’s city center. As Ukrainian troops are likely to try to consolidate control of the western bank in the coming days, fierce fighting is still going on in the area.
Following two nights of celebration following their city’s liberation, Kherson residents started to evaluate the extent of the damage caused by the Russian occupation on Sunday. Many homes still lacked water and electricity.
Zelenskiy charged Russian soldiers with war crimes and the murder of civilians in Kherson on Sunday.
“More than 400 Russian war crimes have already been documented by investigators. Both civilian and military dead bodies have been discovered. The same savagery that the Russian army brought with it from other parts of the country was left behind, he claimed.
The soldiers left behind thousands of mines, tripwires, and unexploded shells. All essential infrastructure, including four bridges, a 100-meter TV tower, water, electricity, and heat, was completely destroyed by the retreating Russians.
A resolution demanding that Russia be held responsible for breaking international law and made to make up for the extensive damage and casualties in Ukraine was approved by the UN General Assembly in New York.